Free play in a compact city.

The benefits of a compact approach,
Helen Kerr talks with Construction News (March 2015).

The city is changing before our eyes. We are adjusting to the idea of compact living: attached housing, smaller yards and communal outdoor spaces. It is not easy for New Zealanders to make this sort of transformation; it runs contra to our love of cars, big sections, trampolines and lemon trees.

In building cities for people’s wellbeing, however, we are trying to create an ideal environment for happiness. In the words of Enrique Peñalosa, the visionary former mayor of Bogota, Colombia, “Children are a kind of indicator species. If we can build a successful city for children, we will have a successful city for all people.”

There is evidence of this approach at the Wynyard Quarter on Auckland’s waterfront, where a ‘seafloor’ playspace, along with frequent programmed events and playful interventions like the ‘gantry’, repurposed buoys, and towers on Daldy Street all attract families who will happily spend an afternoon in the city.

As we exchange our backyard freedoms for denser living styles, our public parks, streets and playspaces must work harder; they must be more accessible, richer and more robust. And they should have opportunities for play embedded within them.

In the transition from a private to a ‘shared’ backyard, we need to capture the magic and adventure of free play without getting bogged down by all the rules and regulations that apply to playground safety in the public realm. We need to pack our public spaces full of activities for people of all ages and abilities. And we need to do this more cost-effectively, given shrinking budgets for public spaces in Auckland.

A healthier society.

Are we losing our connection to the natural world, along with our independence and mobility, and confidence in exploring and caring for the world around us? Is it because we don’t feel safe out there? Is our environment too boring, is the ‘outdoors’ too far away?

At the moment, it appears that the provision of off-the-shelf play equipment is intended to answer some, if not all, of these questions. But what about ‘unexpected fun’? The thrill and challenge of an ever-changing environment? What about connecting to places and people? In his influential book, Last Child in the Woods, Richard Louv suggests that reconnecting children and adults with nature will create a healthier society.

Children really like to manipulate their environment. They like to build, create, construct and direct their own outcomes. Fixed equipment is important for physical challenge, but in the end the outcome is fairly predictable. That’s why LEGO has stood the test of time, and why the beach is hard to beat for play value and entertainment for all ages.

Let’s face it, we keep coming full circle, and most of us lament the days of our youth when we scrambled over rocks, made nests in long grass, and built forts unsupervised until dinnertime.

Play in the backyard.

Some of these issues and ideas have been explored in the design of the recently completed playspace at Myers Park, central Auckland. Based on the theme of ‘play in the backyard’, this project features a bright canopy of abstract flowers and an assortment of oversized garden birds and bugs.

As Myers Park has a reputation for undesirable night-time activity, along with rigorous daily use by an inner-city school, we were limited to ‘non-loose’ safety surface materials that would not obscure dangerous objects or require a lot of maintenance.

Interestingly, the most popular activity for children at the playspace involves digging and scratching up the compacted limestone surface to run it down the corkscrew ‘vine tendrils’ (intended to be a prompt for interactive play where children can bring toy cars and marbles from home). This makes a big mess.

Also the interactive bells and whistles on the birds and bugs apparently make too much noise for the residents in the surrounding apartments, and have been ‘muted’. It is a sad day when the mess and sound of children playing happily outdoors becomes ‘annoying’.

Reclaiming space in the city for children.

Sometimes it is easy to miss the big picture. With the vibrant new playspace attracting children and families back into Myers Park, along with a myriad of other improvements led by Auckland Council designers to improve safety and amenity, it is not hard to see the benefits of reclaiming space in the city for children.

So how can we provide stimulating, cost-effective free-play experiences in an increasingly compact city? Here are ten ideas:

1. Start as we mean to continue.

Good urban design puts people first. Who will use this space and how will they get there? What experiences are missing in the wider open-space network? Connected spaces stitched into the natural landscape will generally offer greater play benefits to the whole community than small isolated parks.

2. It does not have to be a playground to provide play value.

Fun and playful interventions invite interaction between all ages, and engage people with their environment. This could be something whimsical or unusual along a street or promenade: perhaps a colourful line to follow, a playable or ‘skateable’ wall, a puzzle to solve, an unexpected letterbox or a patch of ‘wild nature’.

3. The blurring of indoor and outdoor play.

Why not design community buildings, libraries and railway stations with steps and slides for both function and fun?

4. The spice is variety and choice.

There is not one right answer when it comes to playspaces. A spectrum of play experiences should be offered within a play network, all complementing each other, and each in its rightful place. Everything from modular equipment to nature play is valid, but too much of the same thing is boring!

5. The importance of destination parks.

A park should be a destination in its own right – an all-in-one large play location – with play experiences across the spectrum, united by a strong theme, and ideally serviced by public transport and cycleways, bounded by pedestrian-friendly streets and integrated with natural features. There is more room to run, more room to move, more buffering for the neighbours.

6. The missing dimension: activation and supervised play.

Community-led initiatives like play streets (organised temporary street closures for programmed events and unstructured play days), play pods (shipping containers full of recycled materials for constructive play), lockable toy boxes or garden sheds for pocket parks, and pop-up activities (such as obstacle courses and kite days) all add to the dimension of play.

7. Shared spaces.

Where space and budgets are tight, schools could open their gates and partner with the community and council to meet play and recreational needs (and vice versa). This provides benefits for all, with improved surveillance and reduced maintenance and operational costs.

8. Low-cost temporary play.

This includes fallen leaves, long grass, mown patterns, prunings and logs, toe toe and flax. When left behind by the maintenance contractors, they become prompts for play – simple, fun and ever-changing.

9. Immersion in nature.

Play could be a simple intervention that invites people (through controlled access) to a previously inaccessible natural environment: a jetty, boardwalk, bird hide, bridge, hut, or tree-top platform.

10. Bringing nature in.

Urban environments need more healthy green spaces to explore that support a range of habitats for flora and fauna. Perfect for play!

At the end of the day it’s about building community through play. It is everyone’s responsibility – parents, politicians, designers, policy-makers, builders, teachers, community leaders – to help children get outside and play. In doing so, we might learn to play more ourselves.